It seems like horror endures more remakes than any other genre. I don’t know if that’s actually true or not, but it feels like it’s true. Why this is is anybody’s guess. Everybody has an opinion on the remake issue, though. For some remakes symbolize Hollywood’s inability to come up with new material. For others they undermine happy memories of bygone days. For still others– well, actually, those are the only two I can think of. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone argue that remakes are universally awesome. Opinions tend toward the negative.
My opinion is an overwhelming meh. ALL genre films exhibit a certain lack of originality; remakes just go a step further by using the name of an established franchise. At least remakes are honest about their own unoriginality. Still, I understand the frustration people may feel, particularly when an original film that you happen to like gets remade into something less than what you think it should be. Consider The Haunting. The 1963 original is a classic and a brilliant example of subtle, atmospheric horror filmmaking. The 1999 remake is a… thing. And it has Owen Wilson getting decapitated. So. Bonus.
The original Poltergeist is also a classic. Many of us children of the ’80s have fond memories of the creepy clown and the killer tree and all the other funny and kind-of-but-not-too-scary shenanigans that made that silly film a great silly film. But let’s be honest with ourselves: it was a silly film. Somebody on Twitter recently re-tweeted somebody else who pointed out that Poltergeist is essentially a family movie, and I think that’s totally right. The message of the movie is that even scary ghosts can’t stand up to love and hugs and, you know, togetherness. I love Poltergeist as much as anybody, but when all is said and done it’s horror lite.
Having said all that, the remake is pretty much exactly the same. This is not to say that it’s a shot-for-shot remake. A great deal has changed, though the core narrative is basically the same: a family moves into a new development; turns out their neighborhood was built on top of a cemetery; the deceased souls of the dead folk are pissed about that and stuck in the house and they kidnap the little girl. There is no Tangina, as we all knew by now, but they replaced her with cranky Irishman Carrigan Burke (the name is there to make sure you know how Irish he is). A number of iconic moments also remain, so you don’t forget this is Poltergeist: there’s the tree, and the clown, and the girl gets sucked into the portal in her closet and talks to her family through the TV.
The weird thing is how the movie seems to delight in its own remake-ness, which works against it at some points. Like, not only is there one scary clown: there are actually a whole BUNCH of them, and they all move (though the only “scary” clown moment is the one they show you in the damned trailer). This is a sort of stupid nod to and simultaneous one-upping of the original. There are a number of similar meta moments: one of the character quips about how the house was just built on a cemetery, “not some ancient tribal burial ground”; Carrigan’s character is a TV host with a paranormal investigation show, and his catchphrase is “This house is clean!” None of these references would work on any level if you weren’t familiar with the original and its legacy, but they don’t really work even if you are. They’re intended to be humorous (I assume), but they’re just sort of eye-rolling throwaway lines that make it harder to consider the film in its own right, instead of as a remake.
For all that, though, the feeling of Poltergeist 2015 is, for me, basically the same as the original. It hits the same notes: you worry for the cute little girl, cringe at the icky decomposing corpses that pop up through the front lawn, laugh at the dad’s not-particularly-funny wisecracks. The original didn’t require a remake: it can stand on its own as a fun, original work of horror(ish) filmmaking that can still wring a scream or two out of unsuspecting audiences. But that doesn’t mean the remake is bad. It’s perfectly fine. Enjoyable, even, to a limited extent. I don’t regret paying the $12 or whatever stupid amount it costs to see a movie now.
It should be said that the actors all do well here. Sam Rockwell is predictably great as the everyman father, Rosemarie DeWitt is a convincing stay-at-home mom, the kids are–well, they’re kids in a horror movie. Jared Harris as Carrigan injects a little humor that doesn’t depend on “munchkin” jokes, which is nice.
The thing I don’t get, again, is why someone thought a remake was necessary. Sometimes remakes are fantastic: Verbinski’s The Ring, or Carpenter’s The Thing, are both incredible movies and completely justify their own existence by being awesome. Poltergeist doesn’t manage that. It’s a fun movie, it just doesn’t seem like something we particularly needed.